Today, the southern suburbs of Denver are beneath 9 inches of snow. Our songbirds are quiet. In my yard, they waited out the winds and cold, taking advantage of the warmest part of the day – only 20 degrees and mostly cloudy – to forage bird and wildflower seed in my yard.
Only a few weeks ago, the world wasn’t like this. The fruits of shrubs and vines didn’t yet show their age. Wasps and flies still found the supple creases in berries, lapping seeps of sugar.
And songbirds hunted tinier insects yet.
Birds of Prey?
It’s difficult to see a songbird as a hunter — and a merciless one at that. The smallest ones — kinglets, nuthatches, bushtits, and chickadees — are not only adorably diminutive. They’re also clownish in flocks. They honk (nuthatches) and dangle upside down (nuthatches and chickadees). Or, as Bushtits do, they move in endless streams of one following the other, as cartoon clowns do when they emerge from a too small car.
But they are merciless indeed, no less so than any bird of prey. It’s just that who they hunt is too small for us to perceive and too alien for us to mourn.
And so it was, a few weeks ago, that I stood underneath a hawthorn tree outside a nondescript office building in Centennial. A noisy flock — is there any other kind? — of Bushtits called me over.
At first, I stood in wonder of how tolerant they were of my presence. But I should have known better. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me. They were just more committed to their hunt than they were to avoiding me.
The flock was indulging in a meal of mealybug. Phenacoccus dearnessi, to be exact: Hawthorn Mealybug, seen in my photo below.
A Matter of Scale?
Mealybugs are roughly 1/25th the size of the three-inch long Bushtits. Coincidentally, this is about the same ratio as a Bushtit to me — and it leaves me wondering if the scale works out in roughly the same way. I struggled to find the Mealybugs, though I experienced no such difficulty tracking down the Bushtits.
Looking at the Mealybug, I initially thought that it must take a miracle for a flock of Bushtits to find something so small. Or perhaps it was evidence of some avian superpower to locate tiny movements of gray against gray bark.
Or maybe it spoke to the Bushtit’s level of commitment to the hunt, a commitment I could never muster. After all, so much for a Bushtit depends on occasionally pillaging a plant of its pests. I got this blog post for finding the Mealybugs. They got survival.
But perhaps the Bushtits just see the Mealybugs as the same size as I see Bushtits?
I’m sure a little more research could tell me if this is so. But I like to think it is, and that the world appears to a Bushtit to be filled with Bushtit-sized beings no less remarkable than a Bushtit.