Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chickadees and cherries

Wild black cherry trees are in full fruit these days, and the birds are all over them. I found a good one a few days ago in Lanoka Harbor, NJ. Good in this case = low to the ground, and absolutely loaded with ripe fruit. The "low to the ground" part facilitated nice views of the birds perusing the fruit clusters, and the "loaded" part made the birds crazed enough with food lust that they paid little attention to me. Orioles, titmice, and house finches all picked at the cherries, and a gnatcatcher hopped about, maybe in search of cherry-eating insects. A juvenile chipping sparrow, a female cardinal, and a few robins also made appearances.

But the star of the show (both in numbers and in style) was a flock of about 10 carolina chickadees. Their strange eating style was as follows: pick off a cherry, grasp it between the toes, peck at it for a second, drop it, and move on to the next. I thought maybe they were eating the pit, at first...similar to how sparrows often eat just the seeds of rose hips, spitting out the fruit.

Chickadee, pecking.

But when I downloaded my photos, I found a surprise: a little grub-like creature. My guess is that they were extracting fly larvae, and then spitting out the "useless" fruit and pit which would clog up their guts with empty calories. The amazing thing was how fast they would accomplish this process: pick, peck, drop, repeat.

Chickadee in mid-grub-extraction. Notice the squirt of juice!

As with many great discoveries, I have no proof but a grainy image. It was getting dark, and I didn't have time go cherry-dissecting to find grubs. I did, however, find time to eat a few myself.

Exhibit A. Grainy close-up of a grub-like object in the chickadee's beak.

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