**Today’s installment of Nature in Your Backyard is brought to you by Joseph Kirollos, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. He’s a student in the Science Communication Seminar, led by NCSSM Dean of Science, Dr. Amy Sheck.**

For many years now, my dog’s food bowl has been a must-see summer attraction for the various songbirds that roam my neighborhood. It has become a sort of watering hole, to which flocks of everything from woodpeckers to towhees to cedar waxwings find refuge, nourishment, and, of course, the company of fellow birds. Naturally, as a curious young middle-school student with a keen love of nature, observing the behavior and interactions of these birds became one of my favorite childhood pastimes, and in the process, I recognized some interesting patterns.

As you would probably expect, the different species of birds that I observed exhibited very different behaviors when approaching my dog’s food bowl. American robins, for instance, always seemed to have an aloofness about them as they explored the yard for food. It would almost seem as though they were uninterested in the bowl itself, although, in quick short bursts of movement, they would come in for the kill.

Northern cardinals, however, took a much more direct approach. They would simply fly in, get the food, and fly out as fast as possible.

Some birds seemed to be more solitary than others. The red-bellied woodpecker, for instance, would only approach the bowl if no other birds were in sight, and even then, it wouldn’t linger too long.

Other birds, however, seemed to have a more commanding presence. The northern mockingbird, for example, would aggressively approach the bowl in a way that told all the other birds to clear a path or face definite consequences. Similarly, in the case of blue jays, it seemed as though the food itself was not what they truly craved but what they actually desired was some good old-fashioned conflict. I quickly learned to recognize that if a blue jay was around, trouble was not far behind. If even a single other bird approached the bowl, the blue jay would aggressively scare them off, without even attempting for the food itself.

Yet perhaps the most intimidating birds that I observed were the common grackles. These were pesky blackbirds that travelled in mobs and had a look to them that seemed almost sinister yet also incredibly intelligent. When the grackles arrived in groups of ten, you could be sure that all other birds cleared the area, leaving the grackles to feast on whatever food remained.

These middle school observations mark my first real interest in biodiversity.  Before the dog bowl phenomenon, the only birds I seemed to notice, if any, were robins, and even then, they didn’t interest me in the slightest. Watching the birds feast on the contents of my dog’s bowl really opened my eyes to the vast diversity of birds that lived in my neighborhood.

** Are you interested in getting to know your backyard birds (and contributing to citizen science)? Consider participating in the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, February 14-17, 2014, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audobon Society.**

Header image: Red-bellied woodpecker, Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons

Kirollos HeadshotJoseph Kirollos is a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, completing a seminar on Science Communication. Raised in Kinston, North Carolina by two medical doctors, he has always had a strong interest in medicine and biology in general. Growing up in an area surrounded by nature, he thinks it only makes sense that he also would develop a love of birds as well.