Bird watching gives us a break from the stress of holiday season

During the holidays, our schedules become frantic, filled with shopping, list making, baking as well as engagements of all sorts. Frequently, we lose touch with the gifts that nature presents us each and every day, right outside our windows - small packets wrapped in feathers and filled with song.

So take a break from the stress and anxiety of the holidays by getting outside to go birding.

Mixed-feeding flocks fill our local parks and backyards during the cold and dark days of winter. Tiny birds such as bushtits, ruby-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees form the kernel of these loose flocks. But they are by no means the only species to be discovered. Look closely at a mixed-feeding flock as it moves through your backyard or across the forested trail in a local park. You might notice the scolding bewick's wren, the bright beauty of the golden-crowned kinglet, the subtle coloring of the chestnut-backed chickadee. And careful ears will notice the sharp "peek" of a downy woodpecker joining the group. In addition, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, spotted towhees, and yellow-rumped warblers are not uncommon.

Mixed-feeding flocks are formed by birds outside of the nesting season, when territoriality is less important and migrants have arrived from the northern climes as well as higher altitudes currently filled with snow. These feeding flocks provide protection from aerials predators such as the sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks. Many eyes provide security for the birds - safety in numbers.

Some scientists believe mixed-feeding flocks also aide the individual birds and different species in their search for food. The energetic double legged scratching of a spotted towhee may stir up invertebrates or uncover seeds that are in turn available for a junco to eat. Or a chickadee may discover a treasure trove of spider egg sacs dangling at the end of a Douglas fir branch, and then alert kinglets to the additional food supply.

Mixed-feeding flocks can best be observed at backyard feeders, particularly suet feeders, or in urban parks with healthy stands of forest with thickety understory. This easy-to-access availability means there's no need to travel great distances or stretch an already-stretched holiday budget.

Whatever their reasons and benefits - be it food, protection or an accident of migration - species of birds tend to group together; we humans can benefit as well if we only take the time to notice. Careful observation of these winter wonders can yield new information about birds, or it can just take you away from the holiday stress and anxiety, if just for a morning or a moment.

Birder Penny Rose is a public education program specialist and Adopt an Area coordinator at Discovery Park. She can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]