Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Memories of birdwatching with Roger Tory Peterson

By STACEY COLE May 05. 2018 1:13AM


Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, May 6, 2000.

An interesting query was received from a Concord reader that read: “From time to time, in answer to readers’ questions, you have quoted short passages from one of Roger Tory Peterson’s books about birds. Did you ever meet him in person?”

Yes, indeed. Roger Tory Peterson was an extremely talented and delightful man to meet. Even though he passed away several years ago, he was and continues to be one of my heroes.

Several years ago, Peterson and one of New Hampshire’s foremost ornithologists, Tudor Richards, led a bird walk in Franconia. It was my privilege to be invited to walk between them.

I remember being surprised when, upon seeing a warbler nearby, Peterson whipped out a copy of his field guide to make sure of his identification. Although his original identification had been correct, he made sure by checking his own reference. Later that day, he autographed my copy of the third edition of his “Field Guide to the Birds.”

One fall evening, Mildred and I attended one of Peterson’s lectures at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Peterson was a not only an excellent and knowledgeable writer but also a superb artist and photographer. Afterwards, we enjoyed a fine visit with him.

Sighting hawks

A Peterborough reader wrote: “I read with much interest in the Saturday, March 18 (2000), Union Leader on hawk activity in New Hampshire and felt I should write and tell you of my sighting of a hawk on the Sunday before your column.

“We have a large flock of pigeons on my street that frequent three different houses for their daily consumption of seed, bread scraps and peanuts. I had been outside that morning refilling my feeders and brushing off the snow that had fallen on them a couple of days before, when all of a sudden I was startled by a loud ‘Whoosh,’ and looked out of my front window just in time to see a sharp-shinned hawk grab a pigeon almost directly out of mid-flight. I had never seen anything like that before. He pinned the bird to what snow was left on the roof of one of my neighbors’ houses. Then, after making sure he had a good hold on it, he flew between my house and the three big pine trees and was gone.

“I have known that there had been a hawk around our area for a while, because my neighbor had told me of a day last summer when he had two mourning doves taken from right under his feeders. I guess he said that the doves just ‘crouched’ down low and stayed there rather than trying to fly away and avoid the hawk.”

Too many jays, pigeons?

“The other point that I wanted to make is that I have been feeding birds for years, and I don’t know if it’s because of being overloaded with blue jays and pigeons (believe me they are hard to get rid of). I’ve tried everything from not putting seed and bread on the ground to almost not feeding the birds at all. Other than the consistent woodpeckers and goldfinches, my other small birds have been inconsistent at best. Lately, during a normal Sunday, I have only seen maybe one or two nuthatches, a handful of chickadees and maybe just an occasional red-breasted nuthatch or titmouse. Will jays and pigeons really keep these other birds away? I’m really good about changing seed when the feeders get wet, so I don’t think it is old seed. Any suggestions?

“I also had a suet cake ripped down by what I believe may have been a raccoon. Do they sleep through the winter? I never found the feeder. It may have been taken so deep in the woods that I may never find it. One last thing, I had a flock of 10-12 goldfinches the other day at my thistle feeder with one other bird mixed in. First I thought it was a pine siskin but it turned out to be a common redpoll. Is this a normal thing or did the guy just wander in and join the goldfinches? I’ve only seen the one. Am I likely to see more as time goes on?”

Occasionally, smaller birds are leery of larger birds such as jays and pigeons when they are in great numbers, but they usually wait for them to travel on. If a neighbor’s feeder is without such competition, the birds may go there instead of waiting. Because our reader keeps his feeders clean of wet seeds and refilled with fresh, I doubt any disease has occurred to cut down on the birds. He makes a good point, however.

Raccoons do enjoy ripping down and carrying off suet feeders. We have had such an experience. It took two years to find one suet feeder and we have two others that are still missing.

I doubt our reader will see many more common redpolls this year, as these so-called “winter finches” are “circumboreal” in that they live (in North America) from the southern edge of the Arctic tundra south into coniferous forests, from Alaska to Newfoundland.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

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