Great blue heron. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

Nature: A bird’s bill is a very important tool

Feathered creatures keep feeders busy in December.  

Redpolls arrive and will stay through the first part of April. These colorful birds are about the size of a chipping sparrow. They are darkly-streaked grayish brown with white wing bars. Their breasts and rumps are a colorful pink and the males top it all off by sporting a red cap. These little birds chatter a lot to each other as they fly along.  

Redpolls arrive in huge numbers some years and only a few arrive in other years. It is fun to watch feeding flocks of redpolls as they gracefully swirl about. Take time every once in a while to watch a familiar bird as it eats and moves about. It can be quite fascinating.  

Redpolls readily take sunflower seeds at your feeder along with millethemphayseed and rolled oats. They prefer seeds of birchesalder and grasses in the fields. Get to know them. These tiny birds breed on the edge of Canada and southward to the northern states. Enjoy them this winter! 

Carefully look at the bills of the birds you get to see up close. Birds flying through the air for food have big mouths. Birds of prey have bills and talons to tear a wild animal apart. Herons have spear-like bills for slippery fish.  

Those birds with tweezer-like bills are best at finding food beneath the bark. The brown creeper commonly seen on this island is a good example of that. They need a tiny tool for extracting insects from very small crevices in the bark. Take a good look at the talons of an owl and its hooked bill – both very helpful tools for tearing apart its larger prey. 

I think my favorite small birds are the chickadees and the nuthatches. My childhood mentors from whom I learned to love the natural world taught me well. I am very old now but can still vividly remember the thrill of the first chickadee and nuthatch sitting on my hand grabbing a sunflower seed. 

I was on a birding trip in Greece one time several years ago and remember seeing a bird fly in front of me and into the walls of an old dwelling. I just knew it was some sort of a nuthatch by its size and the kind of a bill it had. Everything about its actions said nuthatch of some sort. I then had to look in my special bird book for that country or consult the trip leader as to which nuthatch or kingfisher it was. 

Eurasion hoopoe.

One time in Italy, though, a bird flew into the tree near my bedroom window on Sardinia and my immediate comment was “WHAT’S THAT?” It turned out to be a hoopoe. When this medium-size bird landed in an olive tree, a magnificent fanlike crown fell across its head. It was very exciting! 

Here on Mount Desert Island, the many visitors who come here get thrilling sights when a bald eagle sits in a tree nearby or flies up from the beach.  

pileated woodpecker busily chopping the bark off a tree just a few feet away is also pretty exciting and the bird doesn’t seem to care that you are there watching it. These large woodpeckers are oblivious to anyone nearby when in hot pursuit of a female during mating time.  

I watched a mallard pair last spring in South Carolina as the male seemed to be killing a female. He held her under water for so long I thought surely she would die, but the next day they were out on the canal all friendly again and definitely a couple. Love is not always a “many splendored thing.” 

I haven’t heard them lately but I like to hear the coyotes howling in my woods. It is a truly wild sound! Since we have so many deer on this small island, coyotes are needed for they are the only predator we have that can take down a deer.  If deer numbers go up, the deer suffer and so does our island vegetation. 

Please do let me know if you see the Eurasion collared dove at your feeder. The fact that it is here now is of great interest in the larger birding community.  

Enjoy what you are seeing and send me any questions if you have an interesting visitor at your feeder or if you have a wildlife encounter.  

Send comments to [email protected]. 


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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