For the birds

December 14, 2013

 

Years ago, on a late fall day, I spotted a blue jay at our dog’s food bowl eagerly grabbing pellets from the dish. It would leave and then return to acquire more, and I soon discovered a second blue jay also indulging, along with a chickadee or two. Not wanting to keep losing the dog’s food to scavengers, I decided to put up a birdfeeder. The feeder was a crude, hand built one that I tacked to a tree and filled with sunflower seeds. It wasn’t long before a different scavenger took up semi-permanent residence. Red squirrels would crowd the feeder, stuffing their faces while the intended seed recipients, the birds, flitted about in consternation. They could not approach the feeder without challenge from the selfish rodents, so I realized I had to provide squirrel-proof alternatives.

Winter had arrived by the time I had strung a wire between trees and hung several handmade feeders of various design along it, spaced to provide easy access and no crowding. I also set a couple of feeders atop metal poles, these feeders consisting of simple flat surfaces that allowed birds to glide in and land naturally. Where and how I set the feeders up proved to be a perfect squirrel deterrent, denying them access. To my delight, the birds flocked to these crude dispensers. During my first winter feeding birds, I took notice of the variety of species showing up to partake of the food. Grosbeaks would arrive in flocks to overwhelm the feeders, and then all fly off as if on cue for some other destination. Finches in bunches and single nuthatches would regularly stop by. A downy (or possibly hairy?) woodpecker or two would attack with relish the suet balls hung out for their consumption.

Soon, I noticed a hierarchy among the birds, based mainly on size. Blue jays, I discovered, are bird bullies. They glide into the feeders as if ownership is theirs, chasing away smaller birds that dare to attempt to share in the bounty. Small chickadees, which are the most frequent visitors, play the game well, moving rapidly in and out of the feeders, eager to latch onto a prized nugget and escape to the safety of a limb, where they can eat in peace and isolation.

One day a pair of gray jays gracefully glided onto nearby branches as I set out seed. It surprised me how little fear they showed, as blue jays, in contrast, won’t come near if I am in the vicinity. I threw some bread to the jays after realizing their reluctance to eat sunflower seeds, and to my delight they grabbed as many pieces as their beaks could handle before flying off, returning later for more. I experienced keen pleasure watching them shoo off the bully blue jays that also selfishly desired the bread, giving them a taste of their own medicine. I feel a real affinity for gray jays but I rarely see them, as some years they don’t show at all.

It has been over twenty years since I began feeding birds. I only provide seed in winter, as I know that is their most vulnerable time of year. The birds know me well after all this time. When the weather starts turning colder, the chickadees begin to check out the feeders (up until then, from spring through late fall, they ignore them). With the first realization that I am carrying seed, I hear the excited chatter. The chickadees immediately call to others with their signature songs and soon a noisy crowd gathers on the tree limbs around me. Some are too eager and try to approach as I am still loading seed, only to veer off when the instinctive fear of coming too close overwhelms them. Even the blue jays squawk in raucous anticipation, but only from a safe distance. This scene repeats itself daily throughout the winter season.

During the many winters I have fed them, I have witnessed at times well over a hundred birds feeding at once. Other animals also show, attracted by the readily accessible nourishment. Two deer are regular visitors this year. They scarf up the seed fallen from the feeders, as do the ubiquitous squirrels. I expect more deer will come as the cold winter drags on and food becomes scarce. I’ve yet to see a snowshoe rabbit this season, but expect I will. Last year a fox paid regular visits to partake of the seeds.

After twenty plus years, I still enjoy watching the birds and other animals feed. Our dog passed away years ago, and the bowl that initially attracted the birds is long gone—but what the bowl inspired carries on.

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