Rev. Nancy's Blog

Birds in the Dog Food?

California Towhee Source:

California Towhee

Rattle rattle. A little brown bird, larger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin, lands in my dog’s food bowl. A California Towhee. What brings it here?

The brown Towhee, usually a ground foraging seed eater, scratches in the dog food bowl. Food pellets ricochet around the stainless steel. Some flick out into the water bowl. Towhee hops over to the water’s edge and pecks at the floating morsel, sending it bobbing away. Then from another angle, with no more luck. At last Towhee picks up a morsel from the food bowl in its stubby beak and flies to the ground, there to peck until it breaks into pieces. Towhee selects a small piece and launches into flight, making room for another avian visitor.

Western Scrub Jay Source:

Western Scrub Jay

The Western Scrub Jay is more discreet in its selection. Its gray and blue body lands, selects a morsel, and flies up to our deck. There it carefully hammers the hard cube of food into bits with its beak. Bang! Bang! Only then does the Scrub Jay carry the bits back to its nest in the shrubs, one trip at a time.

The larger Steller’s Jay is a faster thief. Its victory call is shrill. The black-crowned, brilliant blue bird scoops up three or more pieces of the food at a time and flies up to its high branches.

The dog doesn’t seem to mind these intruders, unless one comes too close with is sharp beak. Dog is only concerned with intruders that wear fur. Some days I wonder if Dog gets any of her morning allotment at all, or if the birds empty the bowl first.

They need it, and they don’t eat much. They always leave me some, Dog said. Better birds than cats! I smile, knowing Dog’s predatory nature.

Towhee added, We are fast. It doesn’t take much to feed us, especially now when we are nesting. We like it here. You hear our calls and appreciate us. There is good cover, although the cats that wander make us watchful. We also must watch for larger birds from the air, for we are tasty to the hawks. We do not depend on the food you provide, but it is a nice addition, and easy to find when the bowl is full.

Our presence brings your attention to the smaller of us birds. You so often watch the larger ones—hawks, turkey vultures, even crows. We are the ones who bring life to the middle reaches, the undergrowth and shrubs. We have predators both from above and from below. So we are watchful. We are part of what makes nature sing. Talk to Scrub Jay now.

I greet Scrub Jay: “I’m so glad you and the other birds live in the bushes near our house.”

Scrub Jay said, We hear the talk of cutting back the bushes. That is not good. They provide good cover for us and our nests.

I assured Scrub Jay that we only think of cutting away the dead parts of the coyote brush to reduce the fire danger, and we would wait until nesting season is over.

That would be all right then, Scrub Jay decided.

I asked Scrub Jay what they like about the dog food.

We don’t regard it as dog food. If it is dog food, why does the dog not eat it?

A good question, I thought.

We see it as large pieces of grain that contain nourishment. It is especially good for our growing chicks, balanced with the other food we bring them.

“What kind of other food,” I asked?

Other grains, nuts and seeds, and the slender crawling ones who live in the earth. Just about anything.

“And you break the pieces open before taking them away,” I prompted.

Oh yes. You provide both the food and a safe place to reduce its size into bits for our young. It is easier to fly with a small bit in my beak than with a large one. We’re smart, you know. We know how to make use of what is available.

With a flash of azure blue and cloud gray, Scrub Jay leaped into flight, ending our conversation.

Steller's Jay Source:

Steller's Jay

My attention turned to Steller’s Jay, with his bright blue body and black-crested head. His beak is longer than Scrub Jay’s.

Ha – he said – you need to tune your hearing. Half the time you think you hear a hawk it is really me. I have my own voice, but I can call in the voice of many birds, even some humans!

Steller’s Jay glowed with pride at his vocal accomplishments. I thought of the Steller’s Jay who resides at Sulphur Creek Nature Center. He, along with his corvid cousins, the crows, engages in call-and-response crowing with the resident roosters.

Returning to the subject at hand, I asked Steller’s Jay about the dog food.

I like the bowl. It’s shiny and that draws my attention. The food is there for the taking. Sometimes we argue over the last pieces, but most often there is enough for all. I don’t come as often, for I can carry much in my beak. It’s a nice and easy addition to our diet, especially since there are no cats near the bowl. Your dog sees to that.

Did Steller’s Jay have a message for me to relay to people?

Watch us, he said. Enjoy us. We know how to work and play, fight and nurture. All parts of the flow of now. There is, or may not be, anything beyond now. You humans rush through now on the way to somewhere or some time else. Who tends the eggs in your nest when you’re rushing around like that? Partnership, and keeping all in balance, that’s what you need to pay attention to. It’s quite simple really.

And so it is. I thought about how each of these birds has unique ways of benefiting from available resources. We watch them, and are grateful for their presence—for their warning when something is out of balance as well as for their song and color. Thank you, Steller’s Jay, Scrub Jay, and Towhee!

Footnote: Dog food is an inexpensive and nutritious ingredient in meals for many mammals at Sulphur Creek Nature Center. It's also an ingredient in the basic baby bird slurry as well as in the softened self-feeder mixture for young birds that are omnivores, including corvids, mockingbirds, robins, woodpeckers, and seagulls.

Have you found a baby bird?

It's nesting season, and hatchlings will soon be emerging. If you find a baby bird, please see this article for information on what to do: