Blane Klemek column: Watching birds forage can be great entertainment
Often as it is, when we observe wildlife going about their business it’s the “eating business” that we see them doing: squirrels cracking acorn shells, deer grazing on hay fields, or ducks dabbling in the wetlands. All creatures spend a large part of their daily or nightly routine eating or gathering food. It’s a fulltime job to be sure. Indeed, most everything that birds and other animals do is driven by thirst and hunger.
I remember watching a ruffed grouse one time several years ago while passing the time in a deer stand. For an hour the bird foraged on the forest floor underneath the dense understory of hazel and willow. The grouse was methodical as it went about filling its crop, leaving basically no leaf unturned and no hazel bush ignored. It was on a mission to fill its crop, and it didn’t seem to matter to the bird that I was in plain sight.
It came as a surprise to me that the grouse appeared somewhat unaware of its immediate surroundings. Not once was I able to detect the grouse demonstrating the alertness I’ve come to expect from these typically wary species of bird. It behaved almost like a barnyard domestic chicken. I also thought that it would’ve been an easy meal for a predator, such as a fisher or goshawk, to have captured.
In any event, the ruffed grouse shuffled about noisily in the leaves searching for greens and perhaps an insect or two. I watched in pleasure as the bird picked and pecked and consumed mouthfuls of tiny green leaves of some unidentifiable herbaceous plant. But what the grouse was most interested in were hazel buds – and lots of them.
Sometimes with utmost grace and at other times with curious awkwardness, I observed the grouse stalk a reachable-from-the-ground hazel bud and leap unexpectedly high to pluck a bud from a twig, while in other instances I saw him nearly topple to the ground after misjudging the stoutness of a particularly tempting limb replete with buds for the taking.
But persistence generally pays off for everyone, even for a determined grouse. During the time I was able to watch the bird’s entire, uninterrupted breakfast routine, I was also treated to what a grouse sometimes does after its crop is completely full: he takes a nap. As such, between five and ten minutes my little avian buddy “slept it off” until perhaps part of his foodstuffs had passed into his gizzard. With his feathers all puffed out to ward off the frosty cold and his eyes closed as he roosted on a branch near to the ground, the ruffed grouse looked as content as a grouse could be.
Another bird that I’ve had the fortune to observe frequently this autumn has been the gray jay. Gray jays are such interesting birds, especially to watch them searching, gathering, caching, and eating food – and with the gray jay, nearly any food will do.
A seemingly tame wild bird, the gray jay, for whatever reason, calmly glides underneath the forest canopy, often alighting on nearby perches to gaze curiously at human onlookers. Right before our eyes the gray jay will sometimes snatch food from our hands or, at the very least, give us a grand, up-close view of them. So different they are behaviorally from some of their fidgety relatives like the blue jay and Steller’s jay.
Unique among jays and other corvid family members, the gray jay possesses special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to glue foodstuffs together. This enables the bird to clump and stick bonded morsels into and onto hiding spots throughout the forest. During harsh winters the bird can then return to its many caches and feast on its sticky, globular creations.
I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about what he believed to be an increase in the number of gray jays northern Minnesota. At the time, people everywhere were reporting a gray jay irruption. My friend reported observing a gray jay on one afternoon from the comfort of his deer stand as it gathered bits of fat from the entrails of a recently harvested deer. The bird, apparently oblivious or uncaring of my friend perched in the nearby tree, surprised him by landing with a thud onto the wooden platform of his deer stand only inches from his boots.
He watched in amazement as the gray jay emptied his mouthful of deer fat onto the platform, apply the sticky, aforementioned mucous-like substance onto the wad of fat, and then wedge the gob into a space between a couple of boards. The gray jay examined its cache for a moment and then flew to an adjacent perch.
My friend, who was already astonished by the jay’s bold act, then observed the bird fly back to the platform – as if having just realized that his cache’s location was undoubtedly known – and take it. The jay flew off with his ball of sticky deer fat to secure its food somewhere more private.
Although I’ve only illustrated a couple of examples of a couple of birds feeding in a couple of different ways, I’m sure you can think of a couple more birds that you have observed finding and feeding on food.
Right now, throughout the Northland, many of our feathered and furred friends alike are busily foraging. And in so doing they provide plenty of entertainment and education for us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.